Very fantastic

Very fantastic
Singapore, Singapore

Singapore, Singapore


“You can’t say ‘very fantastic’.” There are a couple of muted exclamations. Even the more advanced students regard me with a sceptical raised eyebrow. I draw an oversized L-shaped graph on the board, with ‘good – 0’ at the lower end of the y axis and ‘fantastic- 100’ at the top. ‘Good’ I explain, unashamedly enjoying the attention, is weak and as such needs ‘very’, ‘extremely’ or ‘pretty’ to strengthen it. I note the modifiers beside the axis running from top to bottom. ‘Fantastic’ is strong so either functions independently or with the help of the emphatic ‘absolutely’. When it comes to board illustrations I’m in safe-ish territory with graphs and timelines. I’m a pitiable artist: anything more elaborate I sketch rapidly starts to look unerringly suggestive. Phallic, in many cases. My drawings are therefore often erased before the students can even copy them down. From the window of my classroom on the thirteenth floor I can see past the towering office blocks of the Central Business District and out into the Singapore Strait. Container vessels and tugboats are anchored like abandoned chess pieces on the water, waiting out another day in SE Asia’s financial and shipping Mecca. My predominately Japanese and Korean students, mostly housewives plucked from their native comfort zones for the duration of their husbands’ lucrative corporate assignments, seem to be playing a waiting game too. “Who will be here in five years?”, I always make a point of asking my intermediate classes to drill the future tense. Nobody. Once the difference between gradable and non-gradable adjectives is clear and they are engrossed in their textbooks once more, I can afford a moment to imagine striking out beyond the port. It is almost time for the next adventure.


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To the top of an active volcano

To the top of an active volcano
Senggigi, Indonesia

Senggigi, Indonesia


Mount Rinjani, Lombok.

More than 3700m above sea level.

Last erupted January 2016 (“it was only small”, points out our guide helpfully).

Over three days and two nights we trek to the summit and back from base camp at Sembalun.

As the photos attest, clouds defeated the promised spectacular sunrise and sunset views all the way.

But hey, we defeated the clouds.


Learning Chinese-the difficult bits

Learning Chinese-the difficult bits
Singapore, Singapore

Singapore, Singapore


A Mandarin Chinese learner must absorb a lot of information with each new word. Consider, for instance, the following two characters: 家 (jīa) – home or family 扶 (fú) – to lend somebody a hand Sounds The romanised spelling (known as ‘pinyin’) is listed in brackets above. As in every foreign language, the letters correspond to sounds that don’t always exactly match their English equivalents and those variations should be learnt first. Chinese has four pronunced tones and a neutral ‘toneless’ tone. Above the pinyin vowels there is a mark referring to the tone that must be used. 家 (jīa) uses the high flat tone; it should be spoken at the top of the voice range. 扶 (fú) uses the second, rising tone. This tone sounds like you are asking a question, even when you aren’t. The tone must be learnt along with the word, as it forms part of its meaning. For example bǎo (said in a falling and rising tone) means full as in ‘I’m full’ but bào (said in a sharp downward tone as a three-year-old might say ‘no’) means explode as in ‘I’ve exploded’. Even with the tones, there isn’t a one-to-one relationship between characters and pinyin, so it is the character (or the context in spoken Chinese) that confirms the intended meaning. Characters 家 (jīa) is made up of two semantic components, 宀 denoting a roof and 豕 which is an ancient Chinese word for pig. If you were feeling creative you could draw a snout and a jowl around the left-hand edge of this character. Neither component is used individually, but in ancient China pigs-the most valuable thing an average family could own-were kept inside the home as they were safest there. Having a pig in the family denoted prosperity. By the way, I want this to be where we get piggy banks from, but it just isn’t. 家 contains no phonetic component, so there is no guide to its pronunciation in the character itself. 扶 has been constructed differently. It is a combination of a semantic component and a phonetic component. 手 (shôu) means hand on its own. It is also added to many other characters in the component form, 扌, to provide meaning, as in this case. Here you might translate 扌(shǒu) as ‘to lend a hand’. On its own, the second half of 扶, 夫 (fu), means ‘man’. The upper horizontal stroke represents the topknot men would have worn in ancient China. In this case the character for man provides the pronunciation of the word. So, to understand what 扶 means and how to say it, you need already to have learnt that 扌relates to 手 and means hand and 夫 is pronunced (fu). Even if you master individual character recognition you aren’t quite there; you must also read ahead and recognise when you are actually reading a phrase, characters that together mean something different. For example, 洗手间 is literally ‘wash hand room’. Washroom. 火大, ‘fire big’, means very angry. There are over 50,000 characters in circulation. You ‘only’ need around 700-800 of them to manage day to day conversation but roughly 2,000-3,000 to read a newspaper in Chinese. Writing My Chinese and Japanese students instinctively draw an English ‘i’ starting with the dot and the ‘t’ starting with the horizontal line. This is because the writing of Chinese characters (also used in Japanese) is codified around a series of strokes, which must be written in a set order, normally from top-left to bottom right. The two horizontal strokes, starting with the topknot, should be drawn first to make 夫. Those horizontal strokes should always be drawn from left to right. Neglec七 of 七his and 七he o七her wri七ing rules is as obvious 七o Chinese speakers as a misformed charac七er is in English. Classification of nouns Finally, we occasionally use measure words in English to specify the properties of what we are talking about. For example a pint of beer, a piece of furniture and, brilliantly, a crash of rhinoceroses. However, we can equally refer to a beer, a chair or an animal without those classifying words. In Chinese, an appropriate measure word MUST be used with every single noun. You refer to a book as ‘one bound volume book’, an apple as ‘one round-shape apple’ and so on. If a measure word isn’t used and you ask for ‘one beer’ instead of ‘one glass of beer’ it is likely you won’t be understood. If you forget or don’t know the measure word you can use the catch-all 个 (ge), which is used for something irregular and difficult to classify. What is the most complex and unclassifiable thing you can think of? That’s right, to refer to one person you’d say ‘one irregular-shape person’: 一个人 (yī ge rén)


Learning Chinese-the ‘easy’ bits

Learning Chinese-the 'easy' bits
Singapore, Singapore

Singapore, Singapore


Some of learning Chinese is actually easier than learning other languages: Articles (a/an and the) In Chinese, there are no articles. That is to say the concept of a/an and the doesn’t exist. What a relief! The use of articles in western languages can drastically complicate matters. German is a famous example. Depending on the grammatical properties of the noun it precedes, any of the following words can mean ‘the’: der,die,das,den,dem,des. There are as many variations for ‘a’. While English mercifully uses ‘only’ ‘a/an’ and ‘the’, it is not always easy to explain when and how they are used. For example, why do we say “Here in Singapore THE language school market is saturated” But “Here in Singapore they have A saturated language school market” The point here isn’t the explanation itself but how difficult it is for a non-native speaker to learn and for a teacher to clarify. Now read the last sentence back from ‘The point here isn’t…’. and swap ‘the’ for ‘a/an’ and vice versa. How would you explain the resulting difference in meaning and grammar? Is it really so important anyway? As if to add insult to injury, the pronunciation of ‘the’ also varies depending on what follows it. The lack of articles in Chinese saves the substantial amount… sorry, A substantial amount of learning time. Tense In English, how do you explain the difference between I study Chinese I am studying Chinese (now) I have been studying Chinese I have studied Chinese I am studying Chinese (this Saturday) I’m going to study Chinese I will study Chinese I had been studying Chinese I had studied Chinese I studied Chinese Of course, you can also substitute I with the other pronouns you/he/she/it/they and the forms vary even further. Chinese does not use verb conjugations like this to indicate tense. For example in Chinese, last year I went to China is translated to last year I go to China Next year he will go/is going to China becomes Next year he go to China Why bother with the duplicated effort of changing ‘go’ to ‘went’ or ‘will go’ when you already know when going to China occurs? The reference to time is sufficient to clarify when something takes place. If a time reference is absent, the Chinese instead add particles like 了 (le) and 过 (guò). These grammar words indicate that something has finished or it has been experienced some time in the past respectively. Consider the advantage an English learner of Chinese has over a Chinese learner of English here. Each of the ten English tenses above has its own specific uses, and conjugation involves learning a plethora of irregular forms (I study, I studied, I have studied but I sing, I sang, I have sung for example). In addition, the learner must manage the effect that changing the subject (for instance swapping I for they) has. If you had been getting any of this wrong and, while the meaning will have probably be understood, the native speaker would noticed immediately. Countable, uncountable or plural? Above I wrote ‘…and conjugation involves learning a plethora of irregular forms’. Why didn’t I write ‘a conjugation’ or ‘the conjugation’? The difference between an abstract noun such as ‘conjugation’ and a noun like ‘table’ is that tables can be counted. Countable nouns can take a or the. However, I can also say ‘I think tables are very practical’. Uncountable nouns refer to ideas such as ‘teaching’, ‘localisation’ or ‘furniture’ that cannot in themselves be counted. After all I can’t say ‘I think furnitures are very practical’. What a mess. In Chinese there is no such thing as plural, countable or uncountable nouns. Chinese nouns, with able assistance from the context in a sentence, are robust enough to make it inherently clear how many of them there are and how specific they are. Oh, and they often can also be used to form the connected adjectives and verbs. So, the Chinese word for ‘success’ also means ‘successful’ and ‘to succeed’. As easy as the pies! Relatively speaking… Language created from reality Learners of Chinese are studying a language based on the culture of its native land. Thanks to a history of conquest and invasions, many English words have been pinched from elsewhere. This is illuminating in its own way but can get rather disorienting for a learner wanting to know why the language is as it is. For example, the word Monday has its origins in Old English AND the Latin word lunae dies, meaning ‘day of the moon’. The Chinese word for Monday, meanwhile, is simply the equivalent of ‘week one’. In English we can refer to the country Japan as ‘The Land of the Rising Sun’, but we wouldn’t do so when all we needed to do is directly refer to the country. In Chinese however, Japan is 日本 (rì běn) or literally ‘sun origin’. There are numerous self-explanatory Chinese words such as this imparting cultural knowledge or adding descriptive interest, as well rewarding a patient learner with obvious connections to new vocabulary.